The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors Cover

The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors

Counterintelligence and the U.S. and Soviet Military Liaison Missions 1947-1990

Aden C. Magee

Casemate, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 2021, 336 pages

Book Review published on: November 24, 2021

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization faced each other across the area that would be the inevitable battlefield: the Inter-German Border. Remarkably, for almost the entire Cold War period, a remnant of World War II Allied cooperation existed: the military liaison missions (MLM). In effect, the United States, British, and French militaries had (almost) unlimited access to the Soviet Zone of Occupation, which became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), while the Soviet army had access to what became the Federal Republic of Germany.

Originally, the MLMs were created to prevent misunderstandings and to provide communication between the Soviets and the Western allies. However, as the Cold War dawned in Europe the MLMs provided an opportunity for United States, France, and Great Britain to monitor Soviet army activity in East Germany, learning about equipment and capabilities by sending “tours” accredited by the Soviets to exercise areas and transport hubs. The Soviet Military Liaison Mission-Frankfurt (SMLM-F) and the other two missions in West Germany also had the ability to observe NATO exercises and activities.

Aden Magee’s book, The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors: Counterintelligence and the U.S. and Soviet Military Liaison Missions 1947-1990, explains that the USMLM and the SMLM-F were NOT the same, however. While American, British, and French MLM teams overtly toured East Germany, photographing and noting communist forces there, the Soviet mission in Frankfurt showed little inclination to do the same, or at least not with the same degree of aggressiveness shown by the opposite numbers in the GDR. MLMs toured using relatively high-performance four-wheel drive vehicles, outrunning and outperforming most of the vehicles sent after them. The NATO soldiers would ditch East German and Soviet “escorts” and find hide sites well off the main roads. They would wait for hours near training sites for a chance to observe maneuvers and the latest weapons issued to the Warsaw Pact. They would pass military convoys and drive up to the gates of restricted sites in order to collect information. Some “tours” lasted several days.

On the other hand, the SMLM-F was more of a nine-to-five operation. Despite its location far from the busy training areas of Grafenwoehr and Vilseck, the Soviets rarely ventured out of their Frankfurt compound. It was even rarer for them to fail to return before dinner time. Magee makes a strong case that there was far more going on at the Soviet missions than met the eye. As an outpost of a regime that routinely spied on its own people and conducted espionage on its allies, the Soviet missions were residencies, bases from which covert agents could be run and supplied.

This is a fascinating book. Anyone who was stationed in Germany prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall would have been issued an SMLM card which told the bearer how to recognize a Soviet vehicle while in West Germany and what to do about it. Interestingly, there were more things on the card about what NOT to do (do not detain, do not enter or search vehicle, etc.) than there were actions one should take. Of course, this had to do with the MLMs accredited to the force; in effect, they had a RIGHT to be in West Germany. This nicety was not always reciprocated in the GDR. While in USMLM, a fellow service member’s vehicle was stopped and East German soldiers proceeded to drag him and the other member out of his tour and, as he put it, “roughed us up pretty good.”

On another occasion Maj, Arthur Nicholson, a USMLM officer, was murdered by a Soviet sentry in East Germany while returning to his vehicle. The Cold War could warm up very quickly.

The story of the MLMs might be a footnote in history but nevertheless presents a fascinating aspect of the struggle between Communism and the Free World that is very much unknown to most people.

Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas